Sanibel Vice Mayor Mick Denham was among a team including Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah that returned to Tallahassee this week to implore State Senate to refrain from passing legislation that would effectively destroy local efforts to ensure water quality by dismissing current approved standards involving the use of fertilizers.
Two measures; House Bill 421 and Senate Bill 604 are at the crux of what is being described as a pending crisis by those who have joined coalitions comprised by community leaders, environmental & conservation advocates and commercial representatives affiliated with marine industries.
Last week, in the wake of protests staged throughout Florida and in utter dismissal of the scientific data demonstrating the deadly impact that occurs when fertilizer and pesticide chemicals runoff into area waterways, members of the State Legislative Military and Community Affairs Committed voted in favor of House Bill 421, thus placing it for consideration now by the State Affairs Committee.
Senate Bill 604 is a companion measure sponsored by Senator Charlie Dean who ironically chairs the State's Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee.
According to Cris Costello, the Regional Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club, when Vice Mayor Denham, Commissioner Judah and others arrived in Tallahassee to speak against the bill, Senator Dean denied any opportunity for public input and temporarily postponed the vote.
Costello says the vote was postponed because Dean knew that he hadn't secured the votes necessary for passage, and she anticipates that efforts are underway, even now, to garner favor for the bill.
A similar chain of events occurred with House Bill 421, the House Committee had also suddenly postponed the vote after opposition was launched, but it was taken back-up days later and passed on to the next stage of the legislative process for approval.
Like HB421, SB 604 prevents local municipalities from enforcing regulations involving the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, especially during the summer months when heavy rains flush all those nitrogen and phosphorous enriched chemicals down area waterways and into the Gulf of Mexico thereby creating outbreaks of algae blooms that destroy fish and fundamental ecosystems, and undermine economic systems that are equally tied to Florida having pristine water conditions.
SB 604 is posed to amend Section 482.1562(1) of Florida Statutes through the addition of this text: A person who possesses a limited certification for urban landscape commercial fertilizer application pursuant to this section is exempt from local government ordinances that provide for the use, purchase, and application of fertilizer to urban turf, lawn, and landscape.
It will additionally adds a new paragraph (8) to Section 482.1562 that reads: The department has enforcement authority over professionals who are certified under this section, and all penalties, fines, and administrative action taken by the department shall be consistent with this chapter.
Vice Mayor Mick Denham has summed it up as "an attempt to pre-empt local communities from using standards to ensure the integrity of waterways and coastlines through controlling the use and applications of fertilizers which have been proven to directly impact water quality."
As James Evans of Sanibel Island's Department of Environmental Services puts it, "Those fertilizers make for green lawns, but they also make for a lot of green slime in area waters."
Some nine years ago, when a vast expanse of slimy muck and red drift algae washed ashore several feet deep on area beaches along with the decaying remains of thousands upon thousands of dead fish, there were many who looked upon that event with no clue as to how such could happen.
That event prompted people like Mike and Maureen Valiquette of Sanibel Island to create an initiative known as PURRE (People United to Restore our Rivers and Estuaries). Though PURRE has since closed, that coalition created this county's first public forum and led the campaign to determine what could have transpired to so drastically impair area waters.
During that period, Mike Valiquette, a general contractor by trade, says he was advised by some State forces, "Clean up your own back yard before you tell the rest of us what to do." In this case, the backyard was Sanibel.
It turns out, on one afternoon, Valiquette observed a commercial lawn care company dispensing chemicals on a neighborhood property. He watched as the water from the sprinkler systems mixed with the chemicals and ran into a nearby catch basin. This filled, and ultimately proceeded to run into a nearby culvert where it later passed through a drain and dumped into the waters just beyond a seawall.
Valiquette took photos and from there, drove the discussion as to why local fertilizer ordinances were necessary. He says Sanibel was the first community to adopt restrictions, thanks in large part to protocols written by Rob Loflin who heads the City's Department of Environmental Services. "What he wrote was so good that it became a model for the rest of the state," says Valiquette.
Lee County, as well as other communities, went on to approve similar fertilizer restrictions, which in their short term of application, have already indicated as being helpful in mitigating impact and saving Lee County millions of dollars in savings relating to clean-up costs. But now, Valiquette says, the State seems posed "to take ten steps backward."
"It is amazing if they allow this to happen... the Legislators and Senate are giving in to donors and lobbyists, instead of serving the Great State of Florida... these bills threaten our entire way of life, our economy, our property values and prevents local communities from taking the necessary steps to protect our water," says Valiquette.
Meanwhile Cris Costello says the Bills are based on an idea that lawn workers and agricultural industries won't misapply chemicals therein making their work safe for Florida's waters. That argument was effectively negated just prior to the committee's convening. As it turns out, during last week's rains which stretched to Pinellas County, a lawn company was photographed applying chemicals during the midst of the storm. "Despite information in the Green Industries Best Management Practices Manual, despite the provisions of the local ordinance, despite basic common sense, these workers chose, in the face of both law and common sense, to apply lawn fertilizer during a rainstorm," said Costello.
Though Vice Mayor Denham and Commissioner Judah were unable to speak, Costello says their presence in Tallahassee was important. Costello says, "Their actions in the home districts, their pressure in the halls, and their presence in the committee room all contributed" to delaying the vote.
For now, it is unknown exactly when, or if, the Senate Bill will be taken up again. House Bill 421 has also yet to be scheduled for deliberation by the State Affairs Committee. Costello, Denham, Valiquette, like so many others, say they will continue to monitor State action for what will be another trip to Tallahassee when the moment requires.
All continue to encourage area residents to contact legislators by phone, by email, by personal contact, to speak against passage of these measures.
While Valiquette believes corporate donors are influencing Senate and Legislative actions, he believes that there is still greater influence wielded by voters. "They may listen a little to donors and lobbyists, but they will listen more to their constituents," says Valiquette. "They need to hear from the people who put them in office, and do the right thing for Florida."